Noted medical researcher and pulmonologist Dr. Salim Surani gives local kids the tools they need to stay away from tobacco, to get enough sleep, to eat healthy and more at the It’s Your Life Foundation.

By: Sarah Tindall // Photos by: Dustin Ashcraft

Dr. Salim Surani is one of the world’s leading medical researchers and pulmonologists, discovering the effects of sleep on health, among many, many other topics. He holds positions as associate professor at the University of North Texas and Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, while at the same time, working as the director of critical care services at CHRISTUS Spohn Memorial Hospital and director of the TORR Sleep Centers in Beeville, Alice and Corpus Christi.

He also currently serves on several boards, including the CHEST Foundation and the Del Mar College Respiratory Care Program, and has served on the board for CHRISTUS Spohn Health System. He is an editorial board member for several medical publications, including the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders, Clinical Studies and Medical Case Report, Austin Journal of Clinical Case Report and Open Respiratory Medicine review and Current Respiratory Medicine Review, and he is also a grant reviewer for the Rannis Icelandic Research Fund (European Nation).

This sounds like enough to keep the man too busy to sleep, even after all those studies he’s done that show how important it is. But Surani feels that all of this academia is important and impactful – it is most important to take the research and knowledge he has gained and use it to make a difference in people’s lives. This is something he learned many years ago after medical school, when he went into rural Pakistan on a mission to teach the local population about disease prevention and health to improve the quality of life of the people there.

So, in 2005, enter the It’s Your Life Foundation. Surani began the organization to educate local children at a very young age about the damaging effects of smoking before they ever take that first puff. “Smoking is one of the biggest killers, and it’s preventable!” he says.

“Nicotine is the most addictive substance in the world, so once people are hooked, it is so much harder to get them to quit than to just have prevented the behavior to begin with. Data showed that people take the first puff on average as early as the fifth grade, so we wanted to reach kids before that age.”

The foundation consists of kids who have volunteered to get this message out to their peers. Middle and high school students, along with community volunteers, have spent years making videos and taking them to local schools to give presentations to 50,000 students about the dangers of smoking and give them the tools they need to stay away from tobacco.

With that program rolling, Surani decided to expand his reach and start educating kids about other issues that are negatively affecting their lives. Next on his list: sleep deprivation. “Forty to 50 percent of Americans are sleep deprived,” he says. “This starts and peaks in high school, and can negatively affect grades and mental health for these kids. We’ve started educating students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade before they are exposed to that. We released our first 3-D animation movie about the subject, and received three national academic awards, as well as two Remi awards and one Pixar Academy award for the film.”

The current project is on childhood obesity and diabetes. “The foundation always looks at the cause of a problem and where it starts,” Surani says. “South Texas is the epicenter for diabetes. Corpus Christi is the fattest city in the country, and this problem starts as young as 5 years of age, according to data. So the kids who volunteer for the foundation decided to reach kids at 3, 4 and 5 years of age to educate those kids about healthy eating and the importance of exercise to live a healthy lifestyle and stay away from these debilitating diseases.”

The middle and high school kids go to each participating school for 45 minutes once a week for four weeks. They show the video, take a chef to show them how to prepare healthy foods, do puppet shows, etc., and even hand out healthy snack as part of the program, all to get kids excited and motivated to choose healthy foods for life.

The program has been endorsed by the Junior League of Corpus Christi and the Mayor’s Fitness Council, and it received the Corpus Christi Caller Times’ Community Award in 2013. Now it’s generated interest all over the country, and its impact will continue to spread.

Next on the agenda: a program called iConquer specifically targeting diabetes. The foundation went to L to create a 3-D animation movie teaching kids 2 to 6 years of age about the disease.

With the reach for these videos and programs averaging 15,000 children a year, this is a little foundation making a big impact. The funding comes mostly from Surani and his supporters, including the Ed Rachal Foundation, the Dr. and Mrs. Hugh A. Kennedy Foundation, the Coastal Community Foundation, the Texas Medical Foundation, the LeVerene and Thomas Howell Foundation and the CITGO Helping Hands for Hillcrest program. However, the organization has never done any organized fundraising campaigns except an annual walk and golf tournament.

“We don’t even have an office or application forms, but we have reached more kids than anyone else in the state that I know of,” Surani says. “The community has been phenomenal in its support of us. Many people realize that if you spend the money on prevention, you spend less in the long run. All the credit goes to the community and the kids who have done the project. When you want to do something right, the forces of the whole universe get together to make it happen. It is beautiful, and just you don’t expect it.”

To watch the movies and/or show them to your class or group, visitwww.itsyourlifefoundation.org.